Neo – The University Data Manager

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Data: the life blood of the university.

As every day, Neo opened his eyes at 06:29, just before his alarm went off. Getting out of bed, he went downstairs, boiled the kettle to make tea, and prepared his porridge. 30g of oats, 75ml of milk (semi-skimmed), 15ml of water (tap), medium heat (two-thirds between 4 and 5 on the dial) for ten minutes, and a generous tablespoon of Golden Syrup to liven it up. After finishing his breakfast, he put on his suit (coordinating the colour of his shirt, tie, pants and socks) and left the house at 07:31 for the seven-and-a-half minute walk to the station.

Waiting on the platform, he noted with irritation that the 07:41 was delayed by three minutes – he’d have to pick up the pace at the other end to maintain his routine. He was thankful to get his usual seat, seeing in passing the familiar faces, mostly staring at the floor, their phones, or out of the window. Don’t make eye contact, that wouldn’t be British. Well except ‘Up North’, where he’d heard it was commonplace for strangers to speak to each other on public transport. Madness. The driver had fortunately made up a minute as he arrived at his station, but Neo knew he’d need to be brisk in order to make it to his desk for 08:20. He didn’t have to be in until nine, but it was always helpful to be up and running before his team of three sloped in. Carly was always cutting it fine, breezing in as the university’s clock chimed, and then disrupting the peace and quiet as she settled into her desk, made coffee, and told everyone about her love life and her ancient rabbit. He didn’t really care and was secretly looking forward to ‘Snuggles’ shuffling off his mortal coil, but he feigned interest in the interests of team harmony.

As was now habit, on entering the office, he filled his water bottle from the cooler as his computer came to life, hung up his coat, and then opened his email. There was the usual set of pronouncements from above about some internal research awards, a member of staff on ‘Midlands This Week’, and a new public lecture series on the ancient waterways of the Scottish Highlands. There was also, curiously, a request from a researcher in Education about how far students moved from home to the university. He wondered briefly why that would be of interest, but it didn’t matter. What did matter was that answering it was easy – they had everyone’s home addresses, and pulling that data into an anonymous spreadsheet would be a few minutes’ work. He’d see to it this afternoon.

Closing his email down – it was largely a distraction, noise in the background – he plugged himself into the real business of the day. The first stop after email was always the Virtual Learning Environment, or VLE. He could see that only 143 students – out of 8,256 – were logged in, and most of those hadn’t moved in hours. They’d probably been checking their timetables and had forgotten to log out. Still, it was early in the day, and they were just past a series of deadlines; activity was always down at this time of year. This probably meant that class attendances were down, too – he checked, they were, even on the last three years – and this was a perennial concern for senior management. They perplexingly made a direct connection between attendance and degree grades, and swiftly brought in a university-wide policy to enforce 100% attendance in all classes, even lectures. The latter had required an expensive new system where lecture theatres had to be kitted out with sensors to record the presence of students’ ID cards. The students had wised up pretty quickly, though, and it was only a matter of weeks before the numbers were down again and those that did attend had pockets or bags stuffed with their friends’ student cards. He’d even heard rumours that a racket had grown around it, with a particularly savvy student in Political Science making a small fortune out of coordinating attendances for a small fee.

Overall, it intrigued Neo how keen the university was to optimise every aspect of university life. In between the Finance Director, the Vice Chancellor, and the Associate Dean for Student Enjoyment, they frantically looked for every possible way to game the National Student Survey and any other metrics that were visible to the outside world. Most of them had nothing to do with improving teaching or student life, and recent research had shown that NSS scores had little to no effect on student recruitment anyway. The VC had read the paper, too, he knew, but his own confirmation bias had taken over and he’d rejected the findings out of hand, redoubling the university’s efforts to provide the best student support scores in the Northeast Southern Midlands. Academic staff were now expected to be on call 24 hours a day, and had to respond to any student enquiries within three rings of their mobile phones. Two years of this had made no difference to students’ grades, and staff morale was at an all-time low. The figures were not good news – sick leave was running at five times the sector average.

Every now and then, just out of curiosity, Neo presented the senior management team with the odd curve ball by sharing data on blatantly irrelevant correlations. Even though the VC was a former professor of statistics, he seemed to have entirely disconnected from his academic identity, and desperately clung on to any possible internal policy button that could be pressed to improve the data that appeared on the university league tables. Not long after he’d started, Neo had shared the observation (jokingly, he’d thought) that student participation in online forums was marginally better while ‘The Voice’ was running on ITV. For months afterwards, screens around the university had been peppered with clips from the programme and the VC had included his views on the assorted performances in his weekly message to students. The management were then baffled when there was no overall change in online engagement. The fact that ‘The Voice’ ran over the crunch times of main deadlines and so on had bypassed the entire senior team.

In spite of the nonsense and game-playing around the numbers, Neo found it fascinating to watch, through them, the ebb and flow of university life, the daily and annual rhythms of the campus. You could see so much of what was going on, from library access to coffee shop till receipts, or late night forum discussions and even students’ movements between student halls in the middle of the night. Organisations are like living organisms, and Neo sometimes felt like a physician, monitoring the health of the patient. It was clear that some of the treatments were no better than placebos, but the growth of – and appetite for – data management created jobs for him and his team. There were national and international conferences on it, and a new journal was coming out, too. He was planning on running a seminar with colleagues from a neighbouring university on knee-jerk responses to spurious correlations, but he’d have to call it something else or the university would get wind of it.

He was distracted momentarily by Carly bustling into the office. Snuggles was, sadly, still with us. He looked back at the graph which the monitoring system had just produced. It had red-flagged how the replacement rate for toasters in student halls was 3% above the global mean, and he pitied the Estates Team when they were drawn over the coals about it. He looked over his shoulder and surreptitiously fudged the data slightly. No point creating fuss about nothing.

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Why I’m (thankfully) not on strike

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You may have noticed that staff at about 60 universities in the UK are on strike. I’m not. Why are they striking? And why aren’t I?


There have been rumblings over the past year or so that one of the pensions that many university staff belong to, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), is running at a deficit. That is, that there’s not enough money in the fund to pay pensions in the long run. They therefore want to change the current agreement to have staff a) pay more of their salaries in and b) not be guaranteed a certain income when they retire. I’m assuming that by the time I retire, there won’t be much of a state pension, if anything, so whatever my USS pays out will be more or less what we have to live on, unless I want my kids to look after us (I don’t). This is worrying stuff.

There’s always a trade-off in pensions, in that you ‘lend’ a portion of your wage packet and they invest it to try and ensure that the pot doesn’t lose value. But it’s important to remember that it’s not primarily an investment fund, but a bank account that holds the money you’ve paid in. Therefore the idea is that they go for steady investments, not big risky ones. Has this been misinvested – have they been losing our money? Where this becomes very murky is that all is not what it seems on the numbers front – and this always is a risk when you take on the most highly educated workforce in the country. Academics’ job is to dig into the complex details of life as we know it and see what’s going on. It seems that the claims of the deficit have been enormously exaggerated, and are based on an assumption that, if a lot of UK universities were to go bust at the same time, the pension fund would be in trouble. This, though, is essentially impossible. Admittedly it’s the biggest university by far, but Cambridge alone sits on its own assets of £4.5bn. Across the sector, not one university has gone to the wall in the last 1000 years, and the loss of even one of the smaller ones is unlikely in practice; even if it did happen, the shock to the USS would be negligible. Hmm.

Why aren’t I striking?

In short, I can’t. The strikes are being coordinated by one of the largest unions, the Universities and College Union (UCU). I’m a member of the UCU (and pay into the USS), and when it balloted its members, I said I’d not be willing to strike on this – the vast majority, though, said they would. In my defence, I was less savvy about the murkiness and dodgy numbers, I was trusting in the USS pronouncements, perhaps many people were – and that was probably the point. Now, I’d feel duty-bound to strike. However, most of the staff at my university (and most of the newer universities) are on a different pension, the TPS, the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, and so the union says that we’re therefore not expected to strike. If I did, I’d be out of a job. For those at the universities which are striking, they can’t be sacked as it’s within their employment rights to do so.

On a practical level, I’m glad I’m not on strike because I can’t afford to be. I’m between that proverbial rock and a hard place, as in the long run, I couldn’t afford not to strike if I had the option to. I’ve finally got my financial head above water for the first time in ten years, and you get deducted pay for every day you’re not at work. If my pay cheque went down, we – as in me and my family – would be struggling again. It’s worth remembering that striking staff are losing money. If the strike has its intended effect and the suggested changes don’t go through, and it’ll be worth it as academics won’t be starving to death in their retirement, but it also creates a real financial pain for them now. Also, and this is crucial, a lot of professors who are on strike aren’t affected by these changes because they have a different pension arrangement. Their salaries are high enough that losing a few weeks of pay shouldn’t be excessively painful, too. However, they’re showing solidarity on principle that this pensions fudge is wrong, and are standing up for the interests of their junior colleagues and the system as a whole. Having said that, other academics who are in weaker financial and employment positions than me are having the guts to strike, which is amazing. In short, others are fighting my (collective) corner for me, which is humbling.

But what about the students?

Whenever teachers strike, the government invariably comes out with a line about them letting the pupils down. The thing is, striking is the absolute last resort, nobody wants to do this, and it breaks people’s hearts – and, of course, finances – to be forced into this position. If staff felt supported, wanted, and suitably remunerated, we wouldn’t be where we are. Students seem to know this and appear to be largely on our side, which puts the universities in a trickier position than they may have expected.  Things might look quite different if it was academics (and support staff) ‘versus’ students. Also, the pensions dispute comes on top of a lot of changes in universities and the public sector in general that people don’t like – I’ve blogged about the moral panics in the media around universities, on tuition fees, student employability, early academic careers, rankings, and so on at length. Why haven’t there been strikes on these? Is this academics only thinking about themselves? I doubt it – we’re all in this together. Some of this is about the unions – they ballot, and strikes only go ahead if the collective will is there, but maybe the pensions issue is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The sector certainly is under the cosh. Higher education is not all bad (in spite of what some may think), although it does have its faults, and there are signs that the strike and conversations on the picket lines are reminding people why they love working in universities

Of course, while staff are on strike, the students aren’t being taught. This is, interestingly, is one place where (high) tuition fees are potentially coming to bite the government and universities in the bum. Because students in England pay the full cost (and then some) of their degrees, there’s a perception that they’re being short-changed, aren’t able to study as well. There have been moves to seek compensation, or money back, which is not something that the university finances want to deal with. It’s not really happened before, not for these kinds of reasons. Also, in practice, while some classes are being cancelled, at the same time a lot of university study is the students working things out for themselves, so the overall disruption is minimal. (For a look at the legal situation here, the brilliant Smita Jamdar has written this.) There are also ‘teach-outs’, where public lectures on a range of subjects are being held by staff. The strikes, though, make the timing of the National Student Survey tricky, as university reputations and external ratings are in part calculated on this. There’s a sense, though, that the NSS is of less interest to the highest status universities as their reputations are strong enough to survive student dissatisfaction – they’ll never be short of applicants.

So, I’m not striking, but I should be. I’m glad I’m not, but I also wish I was. If it really does go down to the wire and I have the option to, then I must.

P.S. If you’re not striking/can’t strike, but want to show solidarity, what can you do?

  • For colleagues/staff on strike, don’t email them. Their inboxes will be overflowing with the usual detritus of university life anyway, so give them a break;
  • Take to social media: tweet, retweet, like, and comment on tweets and posts with the #USSStrikes hashtag;
  • Honk your horn to show your support when you drive past any pickets;
  • Cancel your subscription to alumni funds, particularly if it’s Oxbridge (who seem to have started the whole thing off – see the Michael Otsuka blog, below) or Leeds, and tell them about it;
  • Show up to swell numbers;
  • Make tea/coffee and biscuits and deliver them to the picket lines;
  • If you can, donate to the UCU fighting fund, which helps people who can least afford to strike;
  • Brace yourselves. If the changes to the USS pension go ahead, then your pot will be next. Of course, if you worked for BHS, then it’s already been plundered.

For a tiny selection of what is an enormous range of truly excellent blogs out there on the strikes, try these:


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The Golden Age of The University

University Life

Solving the world’s problems, one cheese at a time.

The Professor paused to conjure up an obscure metaphor for the letter he was writing to the local paper about the proposed Gypsy Traveller camp on the (opposite, thankfully) edge of his Berkshire village. Leaning back, he laid his Mont Blanc pen – a gift from his grandfather on graduating from Sussex – on the desk and belched gently. Taking a sip of  tea to try and mask the taste of the sardines from lunch that had risen with the belch, he gazed across his library, through the dust motes cavorting in the beam from the (original) Anglepoise lamp. His eyes settled on the section of shelving reserved for his own books. There was a gap at the end that bothered him; he must fill it – he was sure there was another book lurking in him somewhere. But what? What remained to be said? There was an elusive spark, a glimpse of something at the back of his mind, and then it came into view – yes, that was it: The Golden Age of the University.

It would, of course, have to be an historical account. Higher education in this country (or globally, for that matter) wasn’t what it used to be. He could sweep across the 20th Century but focus on the peak, the three decades before Thatcherism really took hold, and before student numbers exploded under Blair. He’d done well at the local grammar school, earnt his place at Sussex. There were far too many students nowadays, and the cachet of having a degree – even a doctorate – had been watered down. Higher education was, he mused, less of a rich claret and more of a mid-ranged bottle of plonk: drinkable for the masses, but not suited to the palate of the genuine connoisseur.

He was glad he was on the outside now, not that he’d ever really considered himself an insider. He’d been emeritus for three years, giving the odd keynote if the conference location was to his liking, or writing occasional blue skies papers and excoriating book reviews. That was enough, just to keep his hand in and mind active – and to remind people that he was still there and still ‘had it’. He chuckled inwardly at the sudden recollection of Jim Whattinger, a colleague in Politics who’d written every other undergraduate lecture to be completely impenetrable to the students. Jim had quietly sent a memo to staff and junior researchers in advance, advising them of the date and time. They’d all sit at the back of the lecture theatre, enjoying the panicked or forlorn looks on the students’ faces as they failed to comprehend the language games being played on them.

Why had he thought of Jim? Oh yes, because you couldn’t get away with that now. Students had to be ‘happy’ all the time or they made representations to the university which kowtowed to their every whim. He and a select few of his colleagues had seen the writing on the wall early on. Students had started to take their foot off the gas, becoming lazy as fees kicked in. Now they expected everything to be done for them, no longer happy to work hard to develop their minds. They were oversensitive and entitled, thinking only about needless consumption and graduate jobs. When he was a student, going to university had meant something – it wasn’t about work, it was about debating (often over cheese and crackers) about how they could change the world. He’d dabbled in a bit of protest when in Paris by chance in ’68, living on the pittance of his maintenance grant, topped up with the odd bit of help from home. It wasn’t quite like The Young Ones, but it wasn’t far off. The students of today wanted private, en-suite accommodation, piling up debts they’d never need to repay. They had no idea what it was like to have to make ends meet on a budget.

Academic life was different, too. Management had taken over, squeezing the academic enterprise dry, measuring everything to within an inch of its life. There was no more time for staring out of the window, listening to the whirr of the paternoster down the hall while wrestling with the ideas of French philosophers. He still read the odd paper when he saw one he liked the look of, but they were mostly anodyne, talking about social and economic impact. There was no love of knowledge for its own sake any more. Back in the day, they’d been the trailblazers of their time, writing a dazzling book every few years that twisted literary styles inside out. They’d jousted with each other using terminology pilfered from Greek and Latin as their lances and shields, giddy in the joy and certainty of their own playful cleverness. Someone had joked at the time that they were British higher education’s Knights of the Round Table. Hubris, of course, but he let his thoughts wander self-indulgently to wonder which knight he might have been. He’d always liked the swashbuckling Lancelot, although the affair with Guinevere took some of the shine off it. Not what one does, go for another man’s wife, is it. He’d had a fling with that doctoral student (what was her name, was it Emily?) he’d supervised until he called the relationship off. She’d taken it badly, but they were both consenting adults, and he’d heard that she was a moderately successful academic in her own right now. No harm done.

Where had it all gone wrong? It was almost as if he looked up and the whole university system was different from one minute to the next. He’d been knee-deep in big projects in the latter stages of his career, pulling in hundreds of thousands in grants every year to keep the university’s ravenous accountants and promotion panels happy. He’d been savvy with the funding, though, making it stretch further by employing part-time post-docs to do the legwork. As was his right, he took first author on shared publications. Those were the rules of the game and he’d done his time as an exploited researcher after completing his own doctorate. He did write a well-received (and widely tweeted) article about inequality in the academic labour market for the Times Higher, but didn’t want to have the black mark of troublemaker on his CV. This meant that, for the last seven years of full-time work, he’d been able to split his time between two excellent universities. Both had been desperate to pay him through the nose for his name and world-class publications to boost their league table positions. No point looking a gift horse in the mouth, and those salaries had been earned on merit.

He looked down and caught a glimpse of his watch: 5pm already – about time for a sundowner. Port, probably – sherry wouldn’t kill off the still lingering taste of the sardines. He could, thankfully, still afford the quality stuff, no need to stoop to that ersatz rubbish from German discount supermarkets. The mortgage had been paid off a decade ago, the winter fuel payment saved them a bit of money (as did the bus pass), and being on a final salary pension helped. The book would have to wait.



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Are Universities Guilty as Charged?


As the sun has set on 2017, are universities really as bad as they’ve been made out to be?

2017 was an annus horribilis for universities. They’ve come in for a lot of flak and this has the sector feeling under fire. I’m all for picking holes in the way that higher education works – it’s my job to think about this – as it allows us to look at ways of making improvements. However, many of the stories that made the news are smoke and mirrors, and deflect the attention away from more important issues (most of which relate to number 6). Here’s a round-up of the main stories from 2017 and why (most of them) are less important than the amount of words wasted on them.

1: Universities are out of touch. 

Not guilty (any more).

2: Degrees aren’t value for money.

Not guilty.

3: University Leaders are on ‘fat cat’ salaries.

Not guilty.

4: Academics have a three-month summer holiday.

Not guilty. (Although I wish we were)

5. Universities point-blank refuse to offer two-year degrees. 

Not guilty.

6. Universities are deeply discriminatory and hot-beds of harassment.


7. Universities Limit Free Speech

Not guilty

The Verdict, Your Honour? Six out of seven cases for the prosecution have been thrown out, with limited grounds for appeal. The one that we’re failing on is certainly partly our fault – we (and pretty much everyone else) have to hold our hands up and do much, much, better. So what is behind these attacks on higher education if much of the accusations are unfounded in practice? No social/political activity smoke is created without fire, and there seem to be concerted statements from politicians, lobbying groups (and their pet newspapers) to sway public opinion. Sometimes the headline or the accusation lasts in the collective memory even if the case is thrown out, and maybe that’ll happen here. What I think is going on is that we’re being primed for future changes – not that there haven’t been a lot in the last few years. But if you unsettle and divide universities, students, and academics, it makes them easier to manipulate. A major review of funding and governance in higher education has been threatened for some time, and the government is desperate to introduce more competition through existing universities varying their fees, and allowing for-profit universities into the market.  In short, they’re tenderizing the meat.

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Free Speech threatened in Higher Education?


‘The problem is, universities are bloody full of snowflakes these days. Wasn’t like that in my time, by jove!’

Sensitive Snowflakes?

There were strident calls from politicians towards the end of the 2017 for universities to maintain free speech, which of course implies that they haven’t been. The ‘problem’, so it goes, is that certain (political) perspectives are being shut down or excluded from campuses by ‘sensitive snowflake’ students.

This snowflake moniker has been applied to Generation Y – the so-called Millennials – those born between about the mid-90s and mid-2000s. The accusation is that ‘the youth of today’ has had it so easy that they feel entitled to everything in return for no effort, and are unwilling to face up to ideas that might challenge or unsettle (i.e. melt) them. This accusation is justified by denigrating student protest movements such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and what’s known as ‘no-platforming’, and by citing the rising numbers of students seeking counselling. I’ll come to the ‘justifications’ in a minute, but it’s first worth looking at the foundations on which Generation Y rests.

There is some weight behind the observation that Millennials could be more vulnerable than previous generations. They leave university with significant volumes of debt, something their predecessors did not. Coupled with this, the stable careers, predictable pensions, mid-sixties retirement age, and affordable house prices enjoyed by the post-war baby boomers are a thing of the past. Generation Y’s future looks far less promising and predictable than it did for their grandparents. Until recently, they’ve been pretty much ignored by politicians, too. If you throw in political issues like populism, rising social inequality, Brexit (something most young voters in the UK polled against) and climate change, it’s pretty hard to get excited about the next seventy years unless you’re already very wealthy.

#RhodesMustFall et al

Rhodes Must Fall was a movement that started in South Africa where students protested against the presence on their campus of a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, the founder of what is now Zimbabwe. The protest spread to other universities in South Africa, and then to the University of Oxford, where Rhodes studied (briefly) and established a scholarship scheme that still runs today. Rhodes Must Fall is an aspect of a growing awareness and activism against white supremacy – different to the outright racism of the KKK – where the political (and legal, and educational etc) system as it stands is oriented around white, male, middle class values and success. This can also be seen from a cultural perspective where university curricula are dominated by European, white, male thinkers. Black – and other minority – opportunities, experiences, perspectives are, they feel being marginalised or ignored. Is this oversensitive snowflake behaviour? I’d disagree – unless you accepted a whitewashed (i.e. clean, benevolent) view of the British Empire, there’s plenty of justification for this. If anything, they’re trying to open up a broader conversation, not close one down.

No Platform

‘No platforming’ refers to instances where students have militated against certain people being able to give lectures at universities. Two of the best-known cases are Milo Yiannopoulos, an ‘alt-right’ anti-feminist, and the feminist academic Germaine Greer. Both sit at pretty different ends of the political spectrum, but students protested that their views on certain topics were offensive and as such should be not be aired. This starts to head into a grey area, as people’s sensitivity to topics varies. In principle, it’s important to hear perspectives that you might disagree with, to understand why people might have different viewpoints to you. It allows you both interrogate yours – and their understanding – and to work through counter-arguments. This is an essential part of being at university and of being academic, constantly reviewing what is thought and known. At the same time, there has to be a measure of quality – any position must be justified by reason and evidence – unsubstantiated vitriol is unwelcome. There is also no place for inciting violence or hate crimes, and there are already laws around that. Within the ground rules, though, universities should be safe spaces for having unsettling conversations. Provided a talk comes with health warnings, and attendance is voluntary, then surely just about anything goes? In practice, there have been few cases of no-platforming, but they’ve made big news where it does happen, and it gets wrapped up in the snowflake stereotype.


There is evidence that Millenials are more likely to seek counselling than previous generations. Is this a sign of weakness? Perhaps not – we live in a time where our awareness of, and attention to, mental health issues is far greater than it has been, and the stigma around seeking help are slowly falling away. There is also more support than there used to be, which is a good thing. The notion that we should ‘man up’ and maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of any diversity creates huge problems, particularly for men who’ve felt they had to live like that, and for many people associated with them. When you also factor in the social, economic, and political conditions that current students find themselves in, with potentially bleak futures and a heavy burden of debt (which many of them protested against), it’s unsurprising that many of them are feeling the pinch. I would.

All in, there’s no real evidence for that Millenials protest against the slightest thing, get blown over by trivialities, or that universities are shutting down freedom of speech. The real irony here is that many of these accusations circulate in media outlets, fanned by groups that themselves are doing their best to shut down conversations by denigrating or omitting alternative perspectives. As they say, if you point the finger at someone else, three fingers are pointing back at you.


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Universities are Sexist, Snobbish, and Racist


Anyone here who’s less deserving of their success than someone else? Almost certainly…

Perhaps the most ‘positive’ development in 2017, through discussions triggered by the Harvey Weinstein and extended revelations, was the explosion of awareness of the ways in which sexual discrimination and harassment are built into our current society. It’s a sad indictment that it requires scandals and disasters to grab people’s attention, but perhaps it was ever thus. Discrimination and harassment often operate invisibly due to the fact that ‘low levels’ of either are seen as ‘normal’, and people in positions of relative power are able manipulate or abuse others and keep their (or their peers’) so-called lapses of judgment quiet. Much of the improved awareness has come about through activism on social media, allowing certain voices and perspectives to be shared and resonate more widely. Of course, less enlightened opinions and online trolling proliferate and resonate, too, but the hashtags and activities around #metoo and #notallmen – as well as the more well-established #BlackLivesMatter and #EverydaySexism – have been very powerful in heightening our collective consciousness of these issues. Many people – particularly those on the receiving end – have been aware of these things for some time, and it’s not before time that the rest of us had our eyes opened further.

Universities are as complicit in this horrible mess as anywhere else. We’re not insulated from societal issues, and higher education provides endless opportunities for this hideousness to play out. It has long been recognised that social inequality often translates into educational inequality, and this creates significant problems around fairness in university access (particularly at ‘elite’ institutions). That the student body is not representative of broader society is a problem of and for education and university admissions. This non-representativeness also creates further problems for those in marginalised or minority groups when they are at university. Feeling unwelcome, out of place – or being made to feel so – in any environment is uncomfortable. It may not always occur in overt, violent acts, but is built in to everyday language and activity. Without many of us realising it, we’re hampering the ability of others to engage fully and do as well as they could. This has knock-on effects for their happiness and attainment, and then for their overall job prospects. Of course they’ll be harassed and discriminated against there, too, in applying for jobs, in the workplace, and this is no less the case if they work at universities.

Much of the harassment and discrimination in universities will operate beneath the surface, and it’s the responsibility of staff and the entire wider student body to out it and deal with it. Firstly, we all – but particularly privileged men – need to take a good look at ourselves, and basically stop being arseholes. Secondly, we need quotas. Demands for gender-balanced representation in senior management are often shouted down as being discriminatory against talent, but this is plain wrong – it unfairly discriminates for certain social groups and against talent. Asking universities to self-regulate on this clearly doesn’t work, as we can see in the ongoing imbalances around gender, race/ethnicity, social class, and disability, in elite university admissions, in the composition of the student and academic body, in pay, and so on. Someone’s going to have to lose out, but some of those should never have been winning in the first place. Grayson Perry puts this very nicely in ‘The Descent of Man’:

‘The outcry against positive discrimination is the wail of someone who is having his privilege taken away. For talented black, female, and working class people to take their just place in the limited seats of power, some…are going to have to give up their seats.’

I suppose the big hope for 2018 and beyond is that the barriers to equal participation in education and work have been dealt a significant blow, and we’re approaching genuine equality and inclusivity faster and faster. Those with an unfair advantage have a vested interest in keeping it that way; their saying that we live in a society where we’ve moved beyond sexism, classism, racism, and ableism (discriminating against those with disabilities) is patently untrue. Pretending that something doesn’t happen, or doesn’t exist, means that you’re not required to deal with it, and everything’s fine. The thing is, it’s fine for them, but not for anyone else.


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Two-year degrees – a no-brainer?


Two year degrees: a case of students having their cake and eating it? Do they even want to?

Lazy academics…

Yet another storm in the higher education teacup towards the end of the 2017 was the accusation that universities and academics were shying away from offering two-year undergrad degrees. Instead of laying on the traditional six semesters in three years (at £9k a year), we should be teaching an additional semester in the summer to allow graduation in two years, and do this for £11K a year in fees. The rejection of these was, it was claimed, simply academics looking to avoid change, maintain their cushy lifestyles, and short-change students.

In principle, two-year degrees look like a no-brainer on two counts:

  • Firstly, it potentially saves students a fair amount, as they’re only studying for two years at a tuition cost of £22K instead of three years at £27K. They also save the third year’s living costs, about £12K, and start earning a year earlier. If they earn £20K in the first year after graduating, this puts them something like 30K (after tax etc) ‘ahead’ of students who study over three years . This, though, assumes that students don’t need the summer to earn money, don’t want that summer holiday, and will get into decently-paid jobs when they graduates. Overall, though, the raw numbers make some sense – the loss of summer earnings could be off-set by the savings and earlier salary.


  • Secondly, there is – on paper – space in the calendar for this. The long summer break harks back to the time when pupils and students were required to muck in (or out) over the harvest, something no longer true for the majority. As I’ve written about recently, the time from the end of teaching in around mid-May to the start of the new year in October is fuller than some people appreciate. You still have six weeks of exams, marking, and finalising results, and you also need to review and re-/write courses, supervise postgraduates, do research, and deal with any undergrads resubmitting assignments/resitting exams in the summer. Oh, and we like going on holiday, too. There’s also a pedagogical argument, that the ‘slowness’ of the academic year allows students more time to reflect on their learning – it’s not about stuffing knowledge in, but establishing rational, evidence-informed ways of looking at the world. Also, students with less sense of, or preparation for, university life benefit from more time to get used to things and then have a better chance of progressing as far as they can.

Not such a no-brainer after all…

So, it’s not as easy as it looks. I’m also not sure about the financial realities of this for universities. Establishing the precise cost of laying on a degree is a dark art in some way. Could the additional semester each year only be delivered at £2K, rather than £4.5K (half the two-semester, £9K annual tuition cost)? Some of costs are overheads such as rent/rates and bills, library access and staff salaries. But staff in general would have to be doing more, and there’s no slack in the system for it. You either employ more academic (and administrative) staff to ensure that the teaching provision is there and ensure that research can still be done, or you take research out of the mix. For most universities, that’s not an option.

The other fly in the ointment is ‘the market’. As I’ve blathered on about elsewhere, the government assumes that (higher) education should be a market, with a range of competing service providers of varying quality and varying prices. This doesn’t really exist in the same way as some other products and services for several reasons, not least of which is that there’s no genuine evidence of a degree from one university being notably inferior/superior to another, and the cost of provision doesn’t vary. Also, there’s little evidence of much demand for two-year degrees (outside a few specialist providers, see below), so there’s not much need to supply them. Students, it seems, prefer a long summer ‘break’ to earn some money, go on holiday, and gain work experience. The exception may be engaged mature students who already have the experience and inclination to motor through more quickly, although mature students virtually vanished when tuition fees went up to £9,000. 

In practice, the consensus on two year degrees seems to be that they’re relatively unfeasible and won’t take off in the foreseeable future. They’ll by and large (still) be in professional subjects like law, and through alternative providers (i.e. specialist, non-research colleges and universities). If anything, the call and kerfuffle from politicians is probably designed to raise the idea of two-year degrees in the interests of those colleges who either already offer them or who are looking to set up in the future. They’re perhaps trying to make it easier for these ‘competitors’, particularly for-profit institutions. Whether these are a good thing depends on the eye of the beholder. The evidence from the US, where this was really opened up, is often not good – many poorly-served, working-class students students who fail to graduate and are overloaded with debt, while the colleges themselves are high and dry from pulling in state funding through student loans.

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Do Academics get a three-month summer break?


Academic life is great – three months of this, every year!

Over the summer, an ex-government minister dropped a bomb into mainstream and social media by stating academics of having a three-month holiday over the summer. This is bunkum, and he has been ridiculed across social media for it. Teaching finishes in early or mid-May, and then there are still exams, marking, and the balancing of marks that takes us until the middle of June. Then, over the summer, you review previous courses, making changes as required, write materials for new courses, do research, and set all of the materials up for the new year. August is usually quiet as people tend to be away on holiday and/or attending academic conferences. It starts to pick up again in September. It should also be pointed out that postgraduate degrees, both Master’s and doctorates, still run over the summer, so there’s supervision required there. Academics get the same holidays as most people on permanent contracts – five weeks. I actually get seven because our university closes for some religious holidays, but have never been able to take them all. So, big fat holiday in the summer? Big fat lie!

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Are university leaders on ‘Fat Cat’ Salaries?


If you want Rolls Royce leadership, you have to pay for it. Supposedly.

The fact that university leaders are paid fairly well bubbled up in the summer and has rumbled on since then, with the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath being the best paid – nigh on half a million pounds a year. She has since lost her job, and there’s a new code of practice for establishing VC pay. Was all this fuss justified?

First off, universities employ hundreds, if not thousands, of staff, have thousands of ‘customers’, and have budgets that run into the billions – the VC is carrying a lot. That that senior leaders elsewhere in the public sector often earn as much or more was pretty much ignored, as was the fact that CEO salaries for comparably-sized businesses in the private sector are often way in excess of this. A comparison is often made with the Prime Minister’s salary (c.150,000), but this a red herring. PMs may have a lot of responsibility, but they get a grace and favour house in Downing Street, and Chequers Court in the Buckinghamshire countryside. They’re ferried around in chauffeur-driven cars, and spend the rest of their lives earning a fortune in memoirs, after-dinner talks, and lucrative part-time engagements. But this is a hot topic, and seems to have grasped the public/media imagination.

What is dodgy here is that VCs often seem to be on the panels that review their pay packages – turkeys and Christmas, right – and that staff across the sector have seen the value of their wages fall. This is due to wages rising slower than inflation, and that a lot of university staff are on short-term and zero-hours contracts. So, fat cat salaries, not really, but there are problems in pay across the sector, so this is more of a fairness and bad taste issue than anything.

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Are university degrees ‘Value for Money’?


All that learning’ll never pay off, you know…

Government policy has, for some time now, been seeking to create an educational market, in both schools and universities. This comes about through trying to prove (through measurement and league tables) that the quality between universities varies, and well-informed punters then choose where to study (or send their children) based on the quality of the course and the likely financial outcomes. Universities, it is hoped, will charge different levels of fees based on this variation of quality/employment opportunities, just like in other markets, like cars, holidays, whatever. They will also look to up their game in relation to their competitors, to attract those punters.

The first problem is that not everyone is equally well-informed or equally able to apply for whichever university they want; this little to do with ‘ability’ and more to do with luck, parental income and education. High status universities are socially selective, and this is not because wealthier people are brighter.

The second problem is that there is no evidence for any real variation in teaching quality, despite what the National Student Survey (NSS) and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) claim to show. They’re not valid or reliable measures of how good a university/course is (or isn’t). That students from ‘better’ universities earn more and dominate the professions is more an issue related to the labour market and the fact that certain employers – lazily – rely on university status (and the social class of applicants) to select their staff. This connects with the third problem, financial outcomes.

Undergraduate degrees across England cost £9,250 a year, regardless of the subject. This is because the government has said that’s the most that universities can charge. Overall, the inputs the the same, it’s the outcomes that vary widely. The cost of running a degree is not cheap – think of the staffing and infrastructure (administration, libraries, labs, classrooms, IT). Also, as I explain here, courses that are cheaper to run (in the Humanities and Social Sciences) subsidise the more expensive ones (Engineering, Medicine), and the probable salaries in those fields don’t correspond with the cost of provision. If you charge variable fees, you potentially exclude people from poorer backgrounds, and that’s an absolute red line.

All of this obscures that current fee levels are the result of poor government policy. Universities can’t charge variable fees, because it looks bad, but also need to cover their costs – if anyone’s guilty, it’s the politicians that created this unholy mess. The fact that some degrees aren’t ‘value for money’  in the rawest sense should almost certainly be addressed through greater state subsidies for degrees across the board rather than excessive loans which are often not repaid. Fees and loans, particularly in their current form, are pretty hard to justify, and we saw a public view on this in the general election where Labour’s commitment to lower/abolish fees seemed to be a vote-swinger. All of this, though, also obscures the fact that cost = salary is a very narrow way to consider the ‘value’ of a degree when the many of the benefits of a degree are social and therefore unquantifiable.

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